The early playoff knockout means that the Bruins front office can focus more closely now on a much-needed rebuild/redesign up front, first around the draft (July 7-8) and then free agency (July 13).
Truth is, with no first-round pick again (for a third time in five years), the teenage goody tree known as the draft won’t shake down much for Cam Neely and Don Sweeney to enhance a varsity lineup that once again proved “playoff light,” painfully so among the forwards.
Sweeney, being offered a contract extension per Neely, during his tenure has yet to mastermind a meaningful, old-fashioned, body-for-body hockey trade. Granted, those deals are scarce in today’s NHL, with prime assets typically signed to long-term, no-trade deals. Big deals today are increasingly difficult to engineer, but not impossible.
Promoted to the top job in 2015, Sweeney’s first steps were to move out discontented Dougie Hamilton to the Flames, long with ditching Milan Lucic’s overpriced cap hit to the Kings. Decent deals in both cases, but they could be classified more as remedies than trades. Neither returned immediate, impactful roster help beyond the Colin Miller addition from the Lucic swap. Miller had his moments, but not many.
Seven years gone by, Sweeney has not pulled the trigger on a deal centered on moving current key roster components (of the Hamilton, Lucic caliber) for equal key assets that proved immediate agents of change, or foundational roster pieces.
This could be the summer Sweeney is forced to alter his approach and take some bold risks, with an eye focused on acquiring a needed top center — no matter Patrice Bergeron’s career decision. The need is acute even if Bergeron stays, all the more severe if he goes.
Again, the June draft won’t deliver a fix for 2022-23. For the moment, the UFA market has three interesting centers in Nazem Kadri, Claude Giroux, and Evgeni Malkin. Their collective cap hit this season was just over $22 million.
The best fit among those three could be Kadri, who posted a career season (28-59—87) with the high-flying Avalanche, but it is almost unfathomable that the fiery (combustible?) ex-Maple Leaf would be targeted as part of the fix for the Bruins’ issue at 1-2 center. But the need is great, meaning Kadri, 32 at next season’s start, cannot be dismissed out of hand.
Sweeney has a ready-to-ship asset in Jake DeBrusk, the left winger’s trade request dating to November. The other name Sweeney could consider, though it would hurt from the front office suits down to the TD Garden suites, would be defenseman Brandon Carlo.
Together, the 25-year-olds, each with proven NHL résumés, would enable Sweeney to enter the trade market in pursuit of a legit, young (maximum age 24-27), potentially primo center.
The Blackhawks, for example, need proven roster parts and they are desperate for a change in fan narrative after their disgraceful bungling of the Kyle Beach case. As of this writing, they have yet to come to terms on a contract extension for 21-year-old Kirby Dach, the 6-foot-4-inch, 200-pound pivot chosen No. 3 in the 2019 draft (behind center Jack Hughes and winger Kaapo Kakko).
Dach projects as a No. 1, and yes, it’s debatable if he has shown enough yet (59 points in 152 games) for the Bruins to consider parting with DeBrusk and Carlo — a top-six forward and top-four defenseman, respectively. However, it offers an example of the kind of discussion Sweeney could have right now for a high-end young center that he otherwise would have zero chance of landing. It takes assets to acquire assets.
The Bruins have not had a No. 1 center of Dach’s size and potential career arc since Joe Thornton was swapped to San Jose in 2005. Which also serves as a reminder that 1) Big deals can fall out of the sky and 2.) They typically mean yielding bona fide roster assets. Debate here, if you will, the merits and lasting impact of Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau, and Brad Stuart.
The Bruins do not have kids ready to graduate into the No. 1-2 center roles. Not Jack Studnicka. Not Johnny Beecher. Not Marc McLaughlin. If Bergeron walks, that leaves Erik Haula and Charlie Coyle as the best immediate candidates to pivot the top six, knocking heads night to night with the 60 or so best centers across the league. Results project to be, shall we say, uneven.
The issue that plagued the lineup in recent knockouts under Bruce Cassidy’s watch has become repetitive: a lack of timely goal scoring, and lack of overall scoring, with not nearly enough presence in high-danger shooting areas. It has become Sweeney’s engineering glitch, his group’s fatal flaw.
It happened in 2018 and 2020 vs. the Lightning, again last year vs. the Islanders, and one more time this spring against the Hurricanes. Too many Bruins forwards lacked the skills, or willingness or IQ, to command the low slot and get pucks across the line. A litany of kids were drafted, intended to morph into top-six contributors, but fell flat.
No telling how far the Hurricanes will go, but they proved to be far better when it came to scrambling the jets around the Boston net. In fact, with slightly better touch and finish, the Hurricanes could have closed it out in five.
Some of what factored there was the speed and grit of the Carolina forwards. Some of it was their back-end personnel and scoring approach. They had blue liners ready to shoot, be it for goals or tips, deflections, rebounds, or redirects — all the sweet, productive mayhem of the playoffs. If Cassidy is back next season, he has to coax more out of that back line group, which should be a little easier with Hampus Lindholm in the top-four structure.
Cassidy (if) and all the coaching staff have to figure out ways to wring out more goals, avoid yet another “inside ice” failure. Sweeney could help that most by boldly going out now and dealing for a ready-to-play center, one with presence and production.
Manson had his moment in OT
Initially hesitant in his grade school days about maybe following his father’s gravel path to the NHL, Josh Manson potted the overtime winner Tuesday night that handed the Avalanche a 1-0 series lead over the Blues in their Round 2 matchup out West.
Manson, whose father, Dave, played 1,103 NHL games for eight teams and logged 2,792 penalty minutes (No. 13 all time), knocked home the 3-2 winner 8:02 into OT. It was the first playoff goal of his career, and his 502nd game — only his 27th in the playoffs.
Team captain by the end of his three-year stay at Northeastern, Manson departed Huntington Avenue to turn pro with Anaheim in the spring of 2014.
Anyone back then daring to predict who on that 2013-14 Huskies roster might one day grow up to deliver an OT playoff winner in 2022 likely would have chosen Kevin Roy, the winger from Montreal who led NU in scoring for three seasons. The speedy Roy closed his college career with 150 points, just shy of the school’s all-time top 10.
Manson and Roy were Ducks draft picks (Manson in 2011 and Roy in 2012), but it was Manson who cracked the Anaheim lineup full time at only 24, not even a year after ending his Hockey East days. Roy had two brief visits on the Ducks’ roster and the last three seasons has kicked around the AHL (this season with the Laval Rocket). Another forward just not ready or built for prime time.
Manson, 6-3 and 220 pounds, is on track to hit the UFA market in July. He hasn’t been a prolific scorer (career high: 37 points). but he has a little bit of offensive pop and that family DNA element of compete and toughness that has led to 443 career PIMs. Dad rolled up 352 in just his sophomore NHL season with the Blackhawks.
Manson will hit the market off a deal that carried a $4.1 million cap hit the last four seasons. New Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek let him go reluctantly at the trade deadline this March, but could make a run at him again this summer. Manson has the toughness and overall competitiveness that would make him a good fit with the Bruins, particularly on the No. 2 pairing. He plays right side, where Brandon Carlo maintains residence at $4.1 million.
Carlo’s deal allows the Bruins to swap him anywhere through next season before he’s allowed some control of the size of the trade market in his final four years. For a club still itchy to fill the toughness void left by Kevan Miller’s departure, the Bruins could think about signing Manson, particularly if they do successfully shop a Jake DeBrusk, Carlo package.
Manson, like Carlo, has proven an effective penalty killing contributor. His offense, though not abundant, is slightly better, and his physical play and battle level would be an upgrade.
Not what he had in mind
Darryl Sutter isn’t quite Belichickian in his postgame demeanor, but the veteran Flames coach is, shall we say, a minimalist when sharing thoughts. Rarely does he go beyond a 10-12-word declarative sentence, animated, at best, with a shrug and slightest trace of a smile.
Ol’ school Darryl, 63, was especially curt after his Flames endured what he later called “six different games” Wednesday and survived, 9-6, in their opener vs. the Oilers in the rekindled “Battle of Alberta.”
The 60-minute fire drill was a vast cry, as Sutter noted, from the Round 1 Calgary-Dallas tug of war in which goals were scarcer than a hen at a fox convention (he wishes he’d said that).
“We were told that it was a boring series last time,” said a deadpan Sutter. “So I told the players yesterday we’ve got to score 7-10 goals today, knowing full well that [the Oilers] probably [would] score 5-8, and then we could win. So that’s what we did.”
In Sutter speak, the rough translation there is: “I don’t know what the hell that was out there, but it wasn’t hockey.”
Sutter, by the way, was the coach in Indianapolis in 1989-90 when a 25-year-old Bruce Cassidy helped pace the Blackhawks farm club to the IHL title. Cassidy remains an ardent Sutter acolyte, often crediting him as one of his top mentors and coaching model.
Sutter’s coaching heyday came in Los Angeles, where he led the Kings to Stanley Cup wins in 2012 and ‘14. He was away from his bench ministry for three years before the Flames coaxed him to take another twirl.
Reminder of how hard it can be to win in the NHL: Sutter’s Flames this season finished 50-21-11, his first time in 20 NHL seasons as head coach that he reached the 50-win plateau.
By contrast, Cassidy’s Bruins went 51-26-5 — his second time to hit 50 since taking over the bench in February 2016. In the three full 82-game seasons with Cassidy as bench boss, the Bruins have averaged exactly 50 wins. Not easy. If the front office has decided it’s time for someone else (Barry Trotz?), 50 wins and a perpetually sold-out building is a high bar to surpass.
Congratulations to the five women, most of whom played their college hockey in New England, named this past week as the Premier Hockey Federation’s award winners for the 2021-22 season.
Leading the way as MVP: right winger Kennedy Marchment, who rolled up 33 points in 20 games with the Connecticut Whale.
The 25-year-old St. Lawrence graduate, who played the previous three seasons in Sweden, led PHF scorers with a 13-20—33 line. She grew up in Courtice, Ontario, 5-6 miles east of Oshawa, Bobby Orr’s playing home in his junior days.
Taylor Girard, a 2021 Quinnipiac graduate from Macomb, Mich., was the league’s Newcomer of the Year. One of Marchment’s Whale teammates and a fellow forward, Girard finished tied for third in league scoring (11-13—24), her best output since her Lindenwood University days prior to her move to Quinnipiac.
Dominique Kremer, from Fargo, N.D., and once a standout defender at Merrimack College, was chosen as Defender of the Year. Following her 2019 graduation, Kremer also played a season in Sweden (Djurgardens) and this year, her second in Buffalo, collected a 6-5—11 line with the Beauts.
Elaine Chuli, who backstopped 28 wins across four seasons at UConn (Class of 2016) was the PHF’s Goaltender of the Year. Originally from Waterford, Ontario, Chuli turned pro in 2017, and this year, her second with the Toronto Six, went a blistering 16-1-0 with a 1.82 goals-against average and .931 save percentage.
Elena Orlando, a former Quinnipiac (Class of 2014) defenseman, was selected as the Denna Laing Award winner for perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to the sport. The back liner from San Jose, an eight-year pro, moved to the Beauts this season after a five-year run with the Whale.
In acquiring Josh Manson, the Avalanche gave up a second-rounder (2023) along with 6-3 defenseman Drew Helleson on March 24 — not even 10 days after Helleson signed his three-year, entry-level deal with Colorado. Crash course in NHL Business 101: One second you’re on a Rocky Mountain High, and the next you’re digging the So Cal scene. Helleson, from Farmington, Minn., decided this spring to leave Boston College after posting a back line-best 4-21—25 in his junior year with the Eagles. He posted 0-2—2 in 17 regular-season games with AHL San Diego and then 0-2—2 in the playoffs, the Gulls eliminated in three games by the Ontario Reign . . . Kirby Dach’s situation is very similar to that a year ago of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who was spirited out of Montreal by the Hurricanes via an extremely rare RFA signing (and later signed to an eight-year extension). Similarly a No. 3 pick in his draft (2018), Kotkaniemi, a center, collected only 62 points across his first three seasons with the Canadiens. It remains to be seen how impactful Kotkaniemi will be, but the Hurricanes felt strongly enough about a young stud pivot to make such a bold play. The Habs, in turn, would have been wiser to wrangle a package like Jake DeBrusk, Brandon Carlo out of Hurricanes GM Don Waddell . . . Far more top forwards than defensemen in this year’s UFA crop. The two best: Kris Letang (Pittsburgh) and John Klingberg (Dallas), the latter of whom reiterated in recent days that he’d like to remain in Big D. Likewise, Letang would prefer to remain a Penguin. The Penguins stand to lose Letang and Evgeni Malkin. Meanwhile, Bryan Rust, the ex-Notre Dame right winger, agreed Saturday to a six-year, $30.75 million contract to stay with the Penguins. The 30-year-old forward could have become an unrestricted free agent July 13 . . . Some 24 hours after Manson provided his overtime winner, another improbable OT star emerged from the back line when Ian Cole sailed in the 2-1 winner, Hurricanes over Rangers, 3:12 into the extra session. Another ex-member of the Irish, it was Cole’s second goal in 104 playoff games. A free agent last summer, he hooked on with the Hurricanes at one year, $2.9 million last offseason . . . Trotz, Cassidy, and Peter DeBoer were named as Jon Cooper’s assistants on the Canadian Olympic team, but all remained on this side of the Beijing blue line when the NHL opted not to participate. Cooper remains busy with the Lightning (in Round 2 against the Panthers). Trotz has been fired on Long Island. Ditto for DeBoer last week in Las Vegas. And now Cassidy is on the Black-and-Gold hot seat, based on Cam Neely’s comments to the media Thursday. Curse of Team Maple Leaf? . . . .Drafting done right: Feast your eyes on the top three selections by Dallas in 2017: 3. Miro Heiskanen; 26. Jake Oettinger; 39. Jason Robertson. Oettinger, who played three seasons at Boston University, was the MVP of Round 1, despite the Stars getting booted by the Flames in Game 7. In the clincher, the Flames fired 134 times, and Oettinger stopped 64 of the 67 that made it to his doorstep. Stars coach Rick Bowness, who was let go Friday: “We have a franchise goalie, no question.” It was a shot by Flames star winger Johnny Gaudreau, who played college hockey at the wrong end of Comm. Ave., that sent the ex-Terrier home for the summer.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.